How Google Is Killing Native Advertising

How Google Is Killing Native AdvertisingNative advertising has been one of the hottest advertising topics of 2013. According to a recent survey, the majority of publishers now offer or plan to offer native advertising programs.

Two months ago, I examined the performance of more than 300 BrandVoice articles on Forbes, one of the most established native publishing platforms for B2B marketers.

One of the key reasons, however, is the surprising part. Google.

The result: marketers are forking over big budgets to be able to publish on media properties like Forbes, but they are getting just a tiny fraction of the traffic to their content that staff journalists are getting.

How Google Is Penalizing Native Publishing Programs

Google requires publishers to disclose paid content in sitemaps and treats paid content, including the Forbes BrandVoice articles I looked at, differently than editorial content.

The difference on a site like Forbes can be thousands of pageviews on each article.

Less Google traffic means …
… less social sharing, which means …
… less social traffic, which means …
… fewer inclusions in top article rolls, which means …
… publishing on Forbes, or any other major media site, isn’t worth nearly as much as it would initially seem to be.

But Is Native Advertising Just Trickery?

According to Jaime Cole, one of the participants in the recent FTC discussion of native advertising and disclosures, native advertising works best today when disclosure is limited. In short, when publishers and advertisers work together to trick readers.

Judging by their policy, Google seems to concur. In the spirit of Do No Evil, Google intends to protect us as consumers from this marketing trickery.

What Marketers Can Do

As readers, like Google, increasingly recognize that native advertising is not subject to the same editorial standards, the false credibility the publisher masthead brings will fade.

Marketers who use a publisher’s name to lend credibility to thinly veiled self-serving marketing messages will fail. Distribution, even under a major media masthead, will need to be earned and readers will recognize they aren’t seeing a traditional editorial article.

Even on Forbes, with its high price point and the content coaching and controls they provide, this self-centered marketing content is still all too common. Here are two recent examples:

  • Oppenheimer published their view on why actively managed funds are key in emerging markets. Of course, they offer actively managed funds and they hope that by publishing their marketing view on Forbes, you are more likely to believe it.
  • CenturyLink makes the case for colocation as the solution to a number of issues facing CIOs today. Surprise! the article was written by a CenturyLink colocation product VP!

The difference between what we expect of editorial content and articles like this is night and day. For native publishing to work for marketers like CenturyLink and Oppenheimer Funds, they will need to dramatically improve the information (or entertainment) value of their content. For both their audience and Google.

The Future for Native Advertising

You can’t continue to trick savvy readers, or Google, with native advertising on reputable sites. Instead, marketers will need to approach native as a way to incrementally improve distribution of content that meets, or exceeds, our expectations for editorial content. And that’s a bar many marketers aren’t really ready to reach.

Your Turn

Do you look at content from marketers differently, even when it is published on a site like Forbes or WSJ? Do you believe marketers content is disclosed well enough to recognize it? Share your view in the comments below or with me on Twitter (@wittlake).

Photo Credit: Eldkvast via Flickr cc

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About Eric Wittlake

I am a digital and B2B marketer with a background in online media and analytics. I work with B2B clients on media and integrated marketing programs at Babcock & Jenkins. You can connect with me on Twitter at @wittlake or in the comments here on my B2B Digital Marketing blog.

  • michaelbrenner

    Hey Eric, great post as always. When I read your stuff, I find myself holding my breath praying you don’t call us out for doing something stupid (which you should). I agree with your basic premise but I see it a little differently.

    First, there are native ads where brands try to advertise in-stream and there is “sponsored content” brought to you by a brand. Forbes really is more the latter. And it’s not really in-stream!

    We can argue over the distinctions and semantics but there is a difference between an in-stream ad and sponsored content, whatever you call them.

    I don’t think Google is punishing those approaches, it is just ranking it appropriately NOT as high as it might pure editorial. It will punish publishers that don’t comply with the tagging requirements.

    In the end, the best content wins no matter where it is from. Promotional content will be ignored. And thoughtful, funny or entertaining content will be read. I think the system is working pretty well so far. I think brands that try to mask their sponsored content as editorial will be punished severely. And brands that continue to interrupt our web experience with promotional banners will have a harder and harder time showing a business benefit.

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Michael, I always appreciate your comments.

      I have called out SAP a time or two, but generally SAP is an example of appropriate testing and effective planning and execution (your Forbes program has set the bar for other Forbes advertisers).

      Definitions are all over the map still for native, I often see programs like BrandVoice bucketed under the native label. I’ve started calling this native publishing to differentiate it from some of the other ‘native’ approaches but I think I’m alone still on that front.

      I agree that Google is treating native publishing fairly, but it is a big difference from how publishers have often presented it and the expectations many marketers have going in to a program.

      I have had multiple publishers specifically highlight the Google search and news strength of their properties as part of the value prop for these programs. When publishers first introduce programs, they often point to average content performance on their site as a benchmark for advertisers. The reality though is that the numbers are coming out a lot lower (90% on Forbes, although SAP is well above the BrandVoice average) and some marketers are left feeling burned by the sales pitch.

      It is important for marketers to understand going in the difference between sponsored content and true editorial, in the eyes of Google, the audience and the real traffic potential. If native has worked in part because of trickery, hopefully native selling efforts won’t rely on it any more.

      I think we can both agree, buyers will continue to get wiser about marketers content (including native publishing) and upping the quality of that content will be key for it to effective change the perspective of potential buyers over time.

      Thanks as always for the comment and insight!

  • Dara Schulenberg

    Quality wins again and nobody should be surprised that the algorithm is responding. You can argue if there is any difference between native advertising and editorial ‘news’ today. At least native advertising is ‘claiming’ its bias. We need to give our buyers more credit and focus on producing the content our customers want/need, and that does move the needle by solving an issue, making it easier to do business with our firms/clients.

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Mostly agree, although as some of the FTC comments highlighted, advertisers often want less disclosure.

      Love your point that we need to give buyers more credit. Too often marketing seems to think they can just highlight the positives and distract them from the issues, but today’s B2B buyer isn’t that easily fooled.

      Always appreciate your comments, thanks!

  • Ben Tomaszewski

    Eric, as per usual, great post! Every B2B marketer should read Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook by Gary Vaynerchuck. Focus on providing as much value as possible through content, telling great stories, and providing use cases with unbiased data and real insight.. the opposite of punching customers over the head with cheap product pitches.

    Marketers who crack the art & science of providing valuable & engaging content will win in the long run and build loyal followings and brand ambassadors (regardless of Google algos)

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Yes. Regardless of Google AND because of Google, that is the content that will work well on all fronts. I hope that truth never changes.

  • jonahkai

    Eric, thanks for the thoughts, and I completely agree with your ideas. Great posts as always. I do not see Native Advertising going anywhere soon. Most importantly I agree, that marketers trying to use Native Advertising to lend “credibility to thinly veiled self-serving marketing messages will fail”. But we already knew this, content is king!

    A couple other thoughts:
    1 – Is Google really king anymore, sure they still have dominance in Search, but even that is being fragmented. Although Google still has its hands in Display, Mobile, DART, Search, etc. each of these networks is fragmenting and distribution is changing. I used to manage up to tens of millions a year in SEM, and although I still focus on it… it is not my main focus anymore.

    2 – The platforms serving Native Ads will evolve. They are still in their infancy, and are building the platforms to be more responsive, optimize content, parse and “score” content, etc. As this happens more and more publishers will have more faith. I used to run Marketing for AdReady a Seattle based DSP. We had the same issue – infancy in the Display Ad and delivery market. But we, along with all the others (Turn, Media Mind, etc.) got better and working with the IAB/Publishers/etc. created a good market place.

    3 – Publishers, Apps and Mobile… Many publishers these days have direct access to their audience. I do not go type in Adotas, eMarketer, ESPN, etc. I go directly to their sites. Sure, I still use Google to search, but it is mostly for eCommerce type items, or directions, or other things. Furthermore, with the app revolution publishers now have a 1:1 connection to their audience. Heck, I have probably 5 apps from my favorite publishers to get the latest content. This all circumvents the Google Ad Model.

    4 – Content IS King. We run several content distribution sites for our clients, large large clients. And they all take the stance that it should be unbiased, informative and educational content. When you have a client that starts off with that mindset, it is easy to develop good, informative and authoritative pieces. We work with industry influential writers, internal company writers and invest heavily in data, reports, inforgraphics, etc. We run Native, SEM, Display, Re-targeting and several other types of ad models… the difference is, our content is great. So much that we are seeing hundreds of thousands of visitors per month…

    Love your posts, keep them coming and keep Portland great my friend! – Jonah-Kai

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Thank you kindly! You are right, Google (and search) isn’t as important today as it once was. That said, Google continues to be a major traffic source for most sites, particularly if you exclude paid traffic sources. Social, apps, etc are growing quickly but I rarely see them listed as the top source, buzzfeed and similar models aside.

      The tech behind programs labeled ‘native’ today like Outbrain or Nativo is a really interesting space as both management platforms for publishers, like the old DFP, as well as marketplaces, akin to today’s exchanges, develop. That said, the benefit of these is primary traffic back to other places, so this specific search impact isn’t relevant unless these are links under other sponsored content.

      Thanks for the comment, we should connect, would be interested in hearing what you are up to today versus the old AdReady (Ricard was my contact there for quite a while).

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  • Tiffani Allen

    This is great. I agree, trickery shouldn’t find it’s way into marketing nearly as much as it does — especially by way of native advertising. I actually wrote about native advertising, regulations, definitions and best practices recently if you’d like to see where we’re at from a regulatory standpoint. This is the article: http://www.ciceron.com/2013/07/native-advertising-the-truth-about-truth/

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  • Edwin Vlems

    ‘Native’ is just a stepping stone towards authentic content, Google helps us with our steps…

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Nice perspective, thanks Edwin!

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  • mherman31

    It’s interesting that even though Google said they were no longer going to show FBV articles in the News results section of search results pages, they’re still appearing as before, up to 1 week after going live on the Forbes site.

    Then, the articles are generally showing strong rankings in regular results.

    FBV articles are still getting the best of both worlds: Page 1 visibility for up to 7 days (depending on other news stories pushing it out), and great rankings moving forward.

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Thanks for pointing this out. Yes, there is still search value, but it isn’t apples-to-apples with the core editorial content.

      Based on conversations with marketers involved in multiple programs (not only Forbes) over the last couple months, many have either seen search results drop or they aren’t getting the full benefit of search they expected going in. One the of the biggest issues I have is that many media sales reps don’t understand this yet and particularly reps from smaller sites are making sales claims (like the search benefit and average pageviews of editorial content) that they don’t actually deliver.

      I’m glad to hear that your experience has been good. I’ve checked out some of the recent content from your program, nicely done. Thanks for chiming in here and hopefully we can discuss more in the future!

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  • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

    Aaron, thanks for the comment. I’m hesitant to bundle Nativo, Outbrain and Taboola under the native heading, to me they are more like a new ad format. That said, for many marketers yes, they do deliver results at an acceptable cost.

    I’ve always felt that if you have a great story, it can earn distribution. Too many marketers end up trying to “advertise” something that other people would have gladly spread for them. Other stories won’t spread as well on their own; that’s where paid, including native, programs become much more important.